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Trouble in Paradise: Coral Reefs at Risk

The HSUS and HSI target a global trade that lays waste to fragile coral reef ecosystems

All Animals magazine, January/February 2011

by Karen E. Lange

The news spread quickly on the Big Island of Hawaii: Hundreds of yellow tangs, normally seen swimming through reef waters in bursts of brilliant color, had been found rotting in a dumpster, their luminous pigment shining through the green tinted sides of two bulging garbage bags. Soon after the discovery last January at the Honokohau Small Boat Harbor in Kona, state Division of Aquatic Resources (DAR) employees squatted in a parking lot and laid out the 551 bodies, dead fish by dead fish, in rectangular grids of yellow, trying to decipher what went wrong.


In a state where coral reef wildlife attract nearly $800 million in annual recreation and marine tourism revenue, the swoop-nosed animals were apparent victims of an industry that has no use for fish left in the wild. A commercial collector for the aquarium trade may have frozen the fish one by one after they died from stress or injury, gathering their bodies over months for mass disposal. Or the tangs may have perished when a holding tank was contaminated or failed. Whatever the truth, reef collectors were quick to insist that the incident was an anomaly.

The Cost of Doing Business

As advocates of stricter regulation note, however, the event illustrates all too well the consequences of unsustainable collecting. “Death is the cost of doing business,” says Inga Gibson, The HSUS’s Hawaii state director. “Who cares, from the point of view of the collector, if they lose 10, 20, 30 percent when there are virtually no limits on collection?”

Collectors in Hawaii get an average of $4 per fish. So they rely on volume to make a profit. That means they don’t worry if they lose some fish or if their methods so injure and stress other fish it’s likely the creatures won’t live long once they get to hobbyists’ aquariums on the mainland. Especially fragile or hard-to-care-for species—like the kind frequently kept as ornaments in pricey tanks that more and more serve as home décor—are shipped with no guarantee they will arrive alive. And no one’s punished. Even in the case of the dumpster deaths, says Bill Walsh, an aquatic biologist with the DAR, officials couldn’t have prosecuted the person responsible: “There’s nothing illegal in killing as many yellow tangs as you want.”

Campaigns recently launched by The HSUS and its affiliate Humane Society International seek to shed light on these and other murky truths of the trade in coral reef fish. A bill being introduced in the Hawaii legislature with The HSUS’s support could finally end the indiscriminate collection of reef wildlife. At the national level, HSI has been working with concerned scientists and other organizations to reform practices in the U.S. HSI is also working to address inhumane and unsustainable collection overseas. These efforts are major steps toward protecting animals who are sold as pets but frequently treated as disposable. The vast majority of pet fish owners don’t stock their tanks with animals from coral reefs—most fish in home aquariums are captive-bred freshwater animals. But the demand from a relatively small number of saltwater hobbyists takes a disproportionate toll on wild reef fish and their habitats.

“A Dark Hobby”

Left in the wild, coral reef fish who survive the larval stage can live for decades. Yellow tangs, the most popular of those collected in Hawaii, often live 20 to 30 years, and fish in their 40s have been found on reefs. Taken from their natural homes, however, yellow tangs and other fish die at a rate that would never be tolerated for dogs or cats.

Casual aquarium owners are often unaware of the consequences of purchasing wild-caught marine animals instead of captive-bred freshwater fish. But those who profit from reef collection are willing participants in the destruction of fragile ocean environments. “It is a force of evil ... a dark hobby,” says Robert Wintner, a diver who owns Snorkel Bob’s, a chain of snorkeling equipment and rental stores in the islands. Years of seeing fish disappear from the reefs have turned him into one of the most outspoken opponents of Hawaii’s trade.

An estimated 99 percent of aquarium fish collected from reefs off countries such as the Philippines and Indonesia die within a year, reports Bob Fenner, a retired collector who has written about the trade. A big contributor to the high mortality rate is the cyanide commonly used to stun fish for easy capture.

In Hawaii, where collectors net fish without cyanide, Fenner and other defenders of the aquarium trade point out mortality rates are not so steep. But plenty of the animals still die. Each year, an estimated 15,000 fish perish before they can be shipped out of Hawaii—like the yellow tangs found in the dumpster. That’s based on officially reported numbers. Experts believe the actual death toll is two to five times higher.

Venting and Other Cruel Practices

In an effort to quickly take fish from depths of 40 feet or more without killing them, collectors often use a cruel practice known as venting, or fizzing. The safest course would be to bring fish up slowly and let them adjust gradually to pressure changes—as human divers do when they decompress to avoid the bends. But that would require more time than collectors are willing to give. So netted fish are hauled up rapidly, and their swim bladders are pierced with a hypodermic needle to relieve a dangerous buildup of gas that might otherwise force their stomachs out of their mouths. Sloppy venting can pierce organs other than the swim bladder or, if needles are reused, cause an infection. Even expert venting does nothing to relieve fatal pressure that can build up in a fish’s eyes and brain.

After being stuck with a big needle, the fish face a series of other hazards: There’s the stress of the entire experience, which can kill a fish; the loss of protective coating on their scales from being handled; the poor water quality that results when fish are held in cramped or crowded containers of water; and the drop in oxygen as ammonia and other toxins rise. There’s being deprived of food for days before and during transport in order to ensure their waste doesn’t foul the water, even though many eat constantly in the wild.

At every step of the way—from the collector to the wholesaler to the pet shop—the trade takes a steady toll, says ocean tour guide operator Rene Umberger of Maui-based For the Fishes. The industry expects about 9 percent of fish to die during or shortly after each leg of their journeys to pet stores (from Hawaii to Los Angeles and from L.A. to their final destinations). Once in stores, fish continue to die. Those who survive go to some of an estimated 700,000 U.S. saltwater aquariums, where they also may die because of incorrect water temperature and salinity or improper food.

Post-Traumatic Shipping Disorder

Hobbyists often blame such deaths on their own lack of experience. But the fish they were sold were often so damaged they were never going to make it. It’s known as “post-traumatic shipping disorder.” Fish collected with cyanide may survive many days after initial exposure to the poison, but sicken and die once fed. Certain types of fish, even when fairly healthy, are known to be difficult if not impossible to keep in an aquarium because they starve without their wild food sources, such as live coral or the parasites of other fish.

“The pet stores are not going to tell customers, ‘You buy this fish and it will be dead in a week,’ ” says Teresa Telecky, director of wildlife at Humane Society International. “They want to sell the expensive tanks and the salt crystals and the heaters.”

If a fish manages to not only make it to a home aquarium but actually survive a year or more, the animal has probably suffered a huge amount of pain, distress, and fear, according to Stephanie Yue Cottee, a researcher at the University of Guelph in Canada. The reefs the fish have left behind have suffered too—ecosystems that have already been dealt blows by pollution, climate change, overfishing, and unsustainable collection of creatures such as hermit crabs with key roles in reef health. Many of the most popular aquarium species, such as yellow tangs, are herbivores who keep algae in check with their constant grazing. Off Maui, their disappearance, combined with runoff of fertilizers and partially treated sewage, is causing long green strands of filamentous algae to blanket coral reefs.

Unbridled Trade

Each year, around 100 commercial collectors take an estimated 1.5–3.75 million fish and invertebrates from Hawaii’s reefs. All they need to collect and sell the animals is a commercial marine license, available for $50 to residents, and an aquarium fish permit, which is free. Once a collector has these, he can pretty much do whatever he pleases, as long as he stays out of protected areas and files monthly reports, which aren’t checked for accuracy.

Most of the reefs, other than a third off West Hawaii, are open for collection of nearly any type of aquarium fish, including rare and endemic ones. For almost all targeted species, there’s no limit on the number or size of fish taken. No limit on the number of collectors. And no specific ban on venting, starving fish, or cutting the dorsal spines of certain species to prevent sharp tips from puncturing plastic bags. The result, says Brian Tissot, a marine ecologist at Washington State University, is “a race to fish,” with total disregard for the future.

The removal of so many fish—most of whom are juveniles who haven’t reproduced—has shrunk populations outside protected areas by 14 to 97 percent, according to a 2004 report. As fish become rarer, prices increase and collecting continues apace.

The situation has reached the point where the DAR’s Walsh, who has been carefully monitoring populations off West Hawaii and until recently believed the trade was sustainable, says something has to give. “Without [reform], I would say the fishery is unsustainable and should not continue. It’s the result of too many fishermen taking too many fish. These are resources the state is just giving away. It’s ludicrous. It’s crazy.”

The Marine Aquarium Council tried to get industry members worldwide to voluntarily hold themselves to sustainable and humane practices through a certification program. But few signed on. There isn’t enough money to be made in supplying certified fish, even though they are generally healthier and tend to live longer. Collecting and transporting more humanely costs more, and many hobbyists don’t want to pay the higher prices.

Ending Do-As-You-Please Aquarium Collection

But if wildlife advocates have their say, the days of do-as-you please aquarium collection may be numbered. In August, the Maui County Council passed a law requiring local collectors to obtain a county permit and submit reports on how many fish die. Another ordinance, still pending, would ban collectors from venting fish, depriving them of food for more than 24 hours before shipping, and clipping their spines. In addition, it would require wholesalers and retailers to submit mortality reports.

Also last year, county council members on the Big Island proposed prohibiting the trade there, while Hawaii state Sen. Josh Green says he will introduce a bill to restrict or potentially ban the trade statewide. Collectors on the Big Island have agreed to cap the number of permits, which has been rapidly rising, as well as limit the fish species they can collect to 40 out of 169 (though enforcement may be challenging, given that DAR staff aren’t allowed to inspect collectors’ boats without probable cause).

A Global Problem

Hawaii, though, supplies just a tiny fraction of the 30 million coral reef fish sold each year to hobbyists worldwide. Indonesia and the Philippines supply many more, accounting for 70 percent of the imports into the United States, which buys more than half the animals taken from reefs worldwide. Any reform effort will have to address collection methods in those and other countries and better regulate the transport and sale of fish across the U.S., according to a 2010 report by Tissot, Telecky, and others. Otherwise, local fish populations will continue to be decimated and reefs destroyed.

Five thousand miles northeast of Hawaii, in a Maryland pet store, hobbyists are offered a stark choice, usually without knowing it. In one aisle are displays of captive-bred freshwater fish—relatively easy to care for and presenting virtually no environmental concerns. But in the next aisle over are aquariums of wild-caught saltwater fish. Yellow tangs—most likely collected from a reef off the Big Island—swim back and forth in little tanks. A starter kit, including an aquarium large enough to keep these fish healthy, costs $869.95 on sale. The individual fish are priced from $39.99 to $79.99, depending on size. The cost in lives and suffering and ecological damage isn’t posted.

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